The opium den looked like someone’s bicycle shed. Utilitarian, the way a grease gun is utilitarian: there to get the job done. You had to duck to enter. The retired chief of police, who rented rooms to travellers, told us it would be safe to go – as long as we got in, did our business and got out.
We got in. Smoke and dust twirled toward the ceiling. A reverential quiet prevailed. On low pallets at either side of the room, users were stretched out, pulling on long pipes. Attending were opium “doctors,” keeping the drug burning over oil lamps. On a bench at the back, people waited their turn.
I’d taken a year off after finishing university and was with a friend, travelling Southeast Asia in an era when few North Americans were doing that. Everything was exotic, strangely scented, brilliantly hued. Fruit I had never even imagined was daily fare, tasting like perfumed custard. I was Alice in Wonderland.
We purchased our opium, tiny sticky balls the colour of figs, and headed for the bench. I was the only female in the place, aside from the round-faced woman who had taken our money and I was determined not to act like a girl. Beside me on the bench were other foreigners, clutching their opium, speaking English. They’d been here before. They knew how to smoke: The key, apparently, once you started inhaling, was to maintain a slow, steady in-breath so you sucked up all the vapour without a hitch and your opium doctor didn’t have to relight.
My turn came. How did I do this? I rose to my feet, I walked to the pallet, I lay down. I handed over my opium to the doctor. In the orange light of the lamp, his face was stretched like parchment, tight, ochre-coloured, straining over knife-edged cheek bones. His expression was neutral, as a man’s face is neutral on an assembly line. He put a pin through the sticky dark ball and gently rolled it back and forth over the flame. When it was ready, he popped it into the bowl of the pipe and nodded. I began to draw in the vapour, slowly, steadily.
A person who has never smoked opium can’t know how long it takes to suck up a whole ball of the drug, even a tiny one. Ten seconds? Ten minutes? I was going on faith that the opium eaters on the bench knew what they were talking about. And maybe they did. A man’s lung capacity is significantly larger than a woman’s.
Whatever my lung capacity, it was insufficient to the challenge. How much opium could there be in that little ball? I kept up my slow, increasingly strained inhaling past the point of a full lung, to the point of an uncomfortable one, right up until my lung was taut, thinking all the while that any second now I would be finished.
Then I exploded into a catastrophe of coughing. I sat up in an effort to breathe and frantically hauled in shattered fragments of murky air. It was impossible to get my breath. I panicked. Nothing mattered to me except air. Not dignity. Not street cred. Not the stories my friend would be able to tell at my expense. I wanted only the sensation of oxygen turning my lung tissues a healthy pink. I fought for it. The air shrieked into my lungs on the in-breath and was lost again in another raucous spasm of coughing. Tears poured down my face. My nose ran. Who knows, maybe I drooled.
And then I was outside, soaked with sweat. I had been revealed as hopelessly, possibly fatally, uncool. But I was breathing. At my command, air went into my lungs. At my command, it exited. How could I ever have taken breathing for granted?
Then another problem reared its head. Nausea. Crippling nausea. Walking didn’t help much, but we tried the beach. My stomach whirled like a prayer wheel. We took off our sandals and waded at the water’s edge. That didn’t help, either. We found a café. Cold lemonade, I decided, was the trick. The television was tuned to the Olympics, the 100-metre dash. The athletes were in their starting blocks, primed. The waiter delivered my lemonade. The athletes’ butts went up. I sipped the sweet liquid. The starter pistol cracked. I was out the door, possibly setting the world record for 100 yards run while doubled over. I saw the dirt road, I saw someone’s shoes. And then I vomited, copiously and at length. That helped.
Back in my room, I drifted in a fog, thinking nothing, aware of nothing. My drug-induced daze could have lasted a single night or 300 years; there were no markers to distinguish time. Perhaps I lived three or four other lives, maybe I ran with the wolves. I will never know.
At some point, I must have drifted to sleep because morning eventually arrived. The nausea was gone and along with it any inclination to try opium in any form ever again. I was grateful to feel the firm bamboo flooring under my feet. The jasmine tea steamed in its clay pot. The sun was up, the day reassuringly familiar. I felt as though I had survived a typhoon and was back on terra firma. What more could anyone ask of life?
Linda Hossie lives in White Rock, B.C.
By Linda Hossie - The Globe/Nov. 8, 2015
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